Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Surprise Creek Hike - Aug 2008 (a belated posting)

Preface: I did this hike in the middle of August amid medical issues (the renewed cluster headaches that eventually led to the discovery of a tumor and the just recently completed surgery). At the time, I just didn't have the wherewithal to sit down and write up a trip report . . . despite having immensely enjoyed the hike. With a successful surgery now behind me, I'd like to share this nude hike with my readers. Belated it is but perhaps it will instill a feeling of summer as the dull pre-winter doldrums take us over. Think sunshine!!!

Now on with the hike, au'natural, of course. The destination is/was Surprise Lake.

The north end of Surprise Lake

The Surprise Creek Trail near Stevens Pass is one of the more accessible and popular trails into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area of the Snoqualmie-Mt. Baker National Forest. That accessibility and popularity does not make this trail a good choice for a nude hike because of the numbers of visitors and the high chance of encountering those visitors along the trail at some point. However, properly planned you can find yourself with this beautiful hike to yourself. First choice, pick a weekday. This trail is a weekend-heavy destination with lots of beginners and those looking for a well-traveled and known trail for a weekend hike.

Secondly, this trail only has one easy access (it does intercept the PCT but PCTers couldn't care in the least about nude hikers). One way in and the same way out. Since there are no cars at the trailhead you can pretty much assume that no one is on the trail. Also the time going in and the planned time coming out have a bearing on the probability of encountering another hiker. Since I was planning on coming out near sunset it would be fair to say that there would be no incoming hikers heading in that late. Those guidelines for a popular trail have served me quite well.

However, while I was getting my gear (aka my fanny pack) together another car does pull up into the trailhead and two women get out. I dawdle and watch them go through their preparation routines. Heavy packs, sleeping bags etc. Be pleasant and engage other hikers. As they passed, loaded to the gills with equipment I exchange pleasantries and ask them about their destination. Glacier lake for a start and further onto the PCT the next day. They ask me where I'm heading and I tell them Surprise Lake and bear hunting (holding up my camera). That gets a laugh and then they are off . . . strong hikers both. I never caught up with them.

These hikers were going in much further and bivouacking the night beyond my planned destination. For me that meant that if I held back just a little then they would be far on the trail leaving me comfortable with the idea of staying nude and enjoying the hike. I gave them fifteen minutes and then I was off. I waited until passing the BPA corridor and entering canopy before stripping down.

Entering the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area

The beginning stretch of the trail is under heavy tree canopy and is a pleasant walk along a well-maintained footpath. Not long into the hike you cross into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area with its wonderful old-growth hemlocks and lush foliage. Deep at the base of the valley, the air is still, heavy, hot and muggy . . . hiking through it is somewhat like walking through a warm resistance that caresses every square inch of my body. I'm glad I'm nude because clothed, I would have been soaked through barely a mile into the trip. Just hiking here is a great explanation of the benefits of hiking nude! How could you not be comfortable? And why should anyone take exception to the sanity of hiking comfortably by hiking nude?

Puncheon Boardwalk predominates the lower stretches of the trail

As the trail begins wind wind higher on the western side of Surprise Creek it crosses the rise and fall of expansive (and sensitive) wetlands areas. Here the Forest Service and trail volunteers have constructed a long series of puncheon boardwalks and stairs to keep hikers off the sensitive wetlands. The puncheon rises and falls over gradually higher hummocks. I'm grateful for them as the alternative would have been an exercise in muddy sloughing.

Crossing Surprise Creek on the replacement log bridge

Eventually the trail would cross over to the eastern side for the only reasonable approach to the outlet of Surprise Lake far above. The old crossing, which was also a large, worked tree trunk, had cleats and railings for safer footing. You can see some of those remains in the picture above. The replacement bridge is another large trunk winched across the creek and planed along the top. Crossing makes you cognizant of your sense of balance . . . not something I'd want to do during winter or times of heavy creek flow. However, the creek is serene now. A gentle breeze descends the creek bed from on higher, providing some sweat and heat-relief. A good place to take a short coffee break in the first open spot so far.

Devil's Club . . . The Nude Hiker's Bane

One should be thankful for the boardwalks and great path because down this low and near the creek Devil's Club is all over the place. This evil succulent would make any traverse across the lower valley torturous, if not impossible. The image above, while pretty with the ripening berries atop the stalk, does Devil's Club little justice. The thorns of the more mature plants are often a wicked inch and a half long and cover every conceivable surface of the plant. They will shred the clothing on any hapless hiker trying to get through. The milky sap is also an irritant in the cuts and scratches the thorns produce.

Devil's Club is traversable if you are careful and I've done it a number of times in need or in taking a shortcut. If you are careful and use your staff to push the stalk aside you might emerge unscathed. Doing so nude and guess what? I emerge relatively unscathed even with direct contact. I guess the sharp thorns slide past my bare skin instead of catching on clothing and pulling in to penetrate skin. But I don't recommend it . . . nor do I go off trail today. Today I just admire the wicked foliage from a safe distance.

The talus slopes overshadowing the lower trail and . . .

You pass a number of creekside clearings on this side that make great campsites for those who do not plan on tackling the headwall of the valley and Surprise Lake above. Campfires are not permitted in potential camping areas near the lake far above, so many weekend warriors will pitch tent down below where they can have their raging fire, and turn the upper lakes into an easier day hike.

Not far from these camping spots the trail briefly winds through a labyrinth of massive granite boulders that have fallen from a large talus slope to the east. What caused the massive collapse of the mountainside is unknown . . . the talus slope has alway shown on the maps.

. . . the resulting maze of gigantic boulders

The trail winds its way around these house-sized behemoths. Sight distance is short because you are always going around another and then another. Large trees jut into the sky with their thick roots corded around boulders in an intimate embrace. These boulders are being reclaimed and reduced . . . eventually, only the trees will remain.

Nude Hikers Breaking Spider Webs Across the Trail? Brrrrrrrr!!!!

Spiders. We're all afraid of spiders, aren't we . . . at some level? I get the willies when I inadvertently walk through a spider web in my backyard . . . and spend the next hour or so scratching an imagined itch in my scalp.

There was a discussion in the nudist forums some years ago about how to tell if the trail you're hiking on as had any other visitors. One of the suggestions was that if spider webs or strands spanned the trail then no one had been there recently. Well, I can accept that advice with some slight reservation. Spiders can spin silk rather rapidly but if I see a lot of spider webs undisturbed I make certain assumptions . . . there hasn't been much disturbance recently. But almost to a person, the heebee jeebees came to fore when someone suggested that he wouldn't want spider webs (and spiders) touching his nude body 'cause . . . spiders bite!!!!

Well, yeah, they do . . . but I've gone through so many spider webs on the trail that I've actually come to enjoy the tickling sensation of the spider silk on my bare skin. Not that I'm going to walk right through a full web like the image above.

A little playfulness on the way . . .
and a detour around the spider web?

Naw, I go around it and wonder how those two ahead of me managed to avoid going face to web as I almost did.

Cooling off along the way . . .

The trail once again parallels the creek for awhile just before the headwall. I stop to splash cold water over myself to cool off. The campers chamois comes out. Rinsed in ice-cold creek water and draped over the back of my neck it makes for an effective way to cool myself on the open, sun-drenched slopes coming up.

. . . because it's going to get hotter on the steep section up

Though the going is now steep and rocky and for the most part in direct sunlight, climbing the headwall is perhaps the best part of the entire hike because I'm getting lots of sunshine. I may be hot down below under the trees but it was also hot and sweaty. Up on the open headwall there is a breeze that dries off the sweat, which cools you . . . but then there is the direct sunlight that conversely warms the skin. A pleasant balance.

They've done a good job of routing the trail through switchbacks too numerous to count as you climb the headwall. You do 2,000 feet of elevation gain in one mile before you reach the saddle at the top and a number of outlets from Surprise Lake. Many people give up but it's well worth the effort.

Intercepting the Pacific Crest Trail

The segment of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from Trapp Pass south, intercepts the Surprise Creek Trail just before you reach Surprise Lake. This is a popular PCT bivouacking area with lots of flat, cleared areas suitable for setting up campsites (though campfires are specifically prohibited here and above 4,000 feet, in general). I think of the two female backpackers who preceded me inbound and tread slower, ready to put on some shorts out of courtesy. But not a problem . . . they have gone in further. I'm still quite alone and enjoying the easier terrain on the saddle. Surprise Lake is not far away over a few hummocks.

On the top it's momentarily like a manicured garden

Most first-time visitors to Surprise Lake are taken aback but the lazy meanders of streams and pools when they come over that first rise. It looks like a formal, manicured landscape of paths, shallow pools and neat grass. What they are seeing is actually not Surprise Lake but a low laying wetlands area that has naturally produced this landscaped effect . . . plus years of hiker's boots packing the hardpan tread of the paths. Nonetheless, entering this low area has a profound effect upon you. You can easily imagine yourself strolling about naked in an urban park . . . one that you know you have to yourself and can stroll about as much as you want. I spend some time in this area . . . enjoying a late lunch and, of course, coffee. This could easily be someones backyard . . . or my backyard . . . transplanted in the wild. So much different from the wilderness one hummock away in any direction.

At Surprise Lake . . . the water's just a little too cold!

One more rise west and you come across the northern shores of Surprise Lake . . . a true alpine lake. I only have time to explore the northern arm which represents about a third of the lake's area. It is sufficient for now because the views are stellar.

The lake is fed from snowmelt well into the late summer months . . . snow still clings deep to the peaks of Spark Plug Gap above. Consequently, the water is frigidly cold. No skinny-dipping here but there is plenty of exploring to do before the dropping sun sends the entire bowl into shadow. Time to head back.

On the way back down

The only downside to this hike was the leaving. I've always like backpacking into this area . . . especially from Trapp Pass past Surprise and Glacier Lakes and on to the shelters higher up. But today I'm not backpacking an overnighter. The sun is going down and most of the route is in shadow. The only question is 'did I leave enough time to get back to the trailhead before darkness?' Especially darkness under the heavy tree canopy further down.

The obligatory cup of coffee at the end of a great hike

I made it out just by sunset though there were moments under those trees as heavy darkness was closing in when I debated with myself about pulling out the headlight. Back at the trailhead I linger about nude enjoying those last moments before I have to get in the car and head back home. I always feel a little down when the day and light is gone and I must dress. And I usually berate myself for not starting earlier. But the exhilaration of today's hike will linger with me for days. Being natural is good for the soul.

Afterword: I don't recommend this trail for nude hiking unless you go out of your way to avoid encounters (do it on a weekday, check the trailhead, time your hike for the off-hours, etc.). This trail is just too popular and accessible, sees many families on hot summer weekends. Surprise Creek is also extremely popular as a snowshoeing destination during the winter months. But, on the flipside, if you can get the trail to yourself it will be a great hike.

Beyond Surprise Lake the nudity issue becomes moot as few go on to Glacier Lake and the segment of the PCT that traverses the area. There is a huge amount of stunning mountainous vistas to explore up there.

Length: 3.05 miles (one way to the outlet of Surprise Lake); a little over a mile more to the shelter above Glacier Lake (5,00ft elevation)
Elevation Gain: 2,500 ft (the outlet of Surprise Lake is at 4,500ft)
Trail well-maintained and relatively easy the first two miles; the last mile up the valley headwall covers the majority of the elevation gain.

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